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Florida's Natural Side

Every year, 70 million visitors flock to Florida in hopes of experiencing the thrill of the theme parks, beaches and night clubs that make the Sunshine State famous. While Florida is well known for the glitz and glamour of the roller coasters and palm trees, this state is also home to approximately 4,000 miles of nature trails - from the depths of the Everglades to the heights of the tallest trees in the Apalachicola National Forest. These parks and trails offer excellent opportunities for discovering the unique natural beauty of Florida's wildlife, by land or sea. Whether your preferred method of transportation along Florida's trails is a horse, a bike, a kayak or your own two feet, an assortment of options exist for the backwoods traveler.

From Pensacola to Key West, a wide variety of nature trails are available for public use across the state of Florida. While the mention of a "trail" often evokes thoughts of hiking tree lined paths with a walking stick, Florida also has many unique water trails twisting throughout the interior of the state. Though surrounded by water on three sides, Florida's interior is also bathed in water due to "Karst topography," an irregular situation in which a thin layer of topsoil sits on top of soft limestone. The limestone is continually eroded by groundwater, leaving gaping holes in the rock. These holes collect water resulting in lakes, rivers and springs. This invisible source of water creates a unique condition that provides Florida with 7,800 lakes, 1,700 rivers and creeks, and more than 350 springs. The deepest known spring in the world is located at Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee, Florida!

Florida's water trails abound in a wide variety of ecological wonders such as mangroves, many different types of birds, sunken rivers, caverns and even the occasional manatee family moseying along. All of Florida's major cities are within one hour of a paddling trail, with plenty of opportunity for kayaking and canoeing. No technical paddling skills are needed, making these water trails appropriate for beginning or recreational kayakers and canoeists.

Another organization providing recreational opportunities through conservation is the Rails to Trails Conservancy (www.railtrails.org). This national effort creates a network of public nature trails from abandoned railway lines. Often times these lines stretch through undeveloped pieces of land, creating an exciting riding surface and an excellent opportunity to view wildlife. More than 30 trails of this type have been created in Florida, offering a multitude of activities such as hiking, biking, rollerblading and horseback riding. With Florida's warm climate and gentle terrain, these trails are suitable for both novice and experienced bikers and hikers.

Closer inspection of the many ecological delights of Florida reveals a total of more than 470 verified species of birds, making Florida something of a giant aviary. Fortunately, many trails in Florida are designed around bird habitats, creating an amazing opportunity to discover and observe Florida's diverse species of birds. The Great Florida Birding Trail (www.floridabirdingtrail.com) unifies birding sites through a series of clusters in different regions of the state. Each cluster, selected because of its great bird-watching or bird education opportunities, highlights special ecosystems and communities of birds. Florida is home to an incredible variety of birds that are rare and nonexistent in other parts of the United States, including the Florida burrowing owl and the scrub-jay.

Greenways and Trails, a division of Florida's Department of Environmental Protection (www.dep.state.fl.us/gwt/), is one organization that makes it easy to discover Florida's natural side through a statewide system of 11 trails and greenways for both recreation and conservation purposes. Greenways and Trails, in conjunction with Florida State Parks (www.dep.state.fl.us/parks/), also provides trails through 12 state parks. Many of these parks offer campsites and cabins for overnight stays. The Florida Trail Association (www.florida-trail.org), a non-profit private partner with Greenways and Trails, offers information and guidebooks about the many trails in Florida. The Florida Trail Association also hosts many activities throughout the year, including guided hiking tours and even maintenance hikes to ensure proper upkeep of the trails.

Although close in proximity to Florida's top tourism spots, the slower pace of Florida's natural side offers a complementary alternative to the bustle of crowds. This creates a unique experience for visitors to observe and experience nature in a temperate and beautiful setting. While the thrill of roller coasters is undeniable, Florida's nature trails ensure the ride of your life.

For more information about Florida's natural side, pick up a copy of Undiscovered Florida, a magazine and guide produced by VISIT FLORIDA featuring various nature, historical and cultural heritage offerings throughout the Sunshine State. Undiscovered Florida contains nine themed feature stories designed to take travelers off-the-beaten-path and on to discover some of Florida's best-kept secrets that are waiting to be discovered. Travelers can receive a free copy of the Undiscovered Florida magazine by calling 1-888-7FLAUSA (1-888-735-2872) or by visiting www.flausa.com and going to "Tools" and then "Vacation Guide."

For information on travel to Florida or to order a copy of VISIT FLORIDA's free Vacation Guide visit VISIT FLORIDA's consumer web site, www.VISITFLORIDA.com, or call VISIT FLORIDA's toll-free consumer number at 1-888-7-FLAUSA (352872).

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